An Interview with Bob Sornson, author of Brainless Sameness, The Demise of One-Size-Fits-All Instruction and the Rise of Competency-Based Learning

Oct 9, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Bob, at the beginning of your book, Brainless Sameness, you offer an historical perspective on why we first adopted a one-size-fits-all instructional delivery system.  Can you summarize this for our readers?

In the 1840s, Horace Mann came back from Europe with a model for the first public schools, which were in the state of Massachusetts.  This model included first through eighth grade, and each grade had a standard curriculum, which included reading, math, civics, and American culture.  In the 1800s the need for highly skilled readers and mathematicians was far less than today.  In most cases students came to school until their families needed them at home or at work, usually staying in school for only a few years.  Exposure to basic skills and ideas was accomplished through this model.

In the early 1900s, Frederick Winslow Taylor and others brought the principles of the industrial revolution to education.  Taylor emphasized the need for a top-down hierarchy in the schools, with administration telling teachers what to teach using the One Best Way of instructional design.  All children were expected to receive instruction in the same way, move from subject to subject on a regular schedule, and then be graded as a way of sorting out the good students from the poor students.  

That methodology is not far from what we are still using today in most American schools. 

2) In what way have the decades of “school reform” updated and improved our schools?

Our best long-term data comes from the NAEP, which goes back to the early 1970s.  Here is a brief summary of the improvement in learning outcomes we have made since that time: NONE. 

NAEP long-term data shows that since the early 70s we have demonstrated no improvement in our language arts or mathematics learning outcomes at the 12th grade level.  There are some small improvements at the 4th and 8th grade levels, but those gains are gone by 12th grade.

Most “school reform” has actually made it much harder for teachers to give students the instruction they need at the correct instructional level.  NCLB mandated state testing in reading and math, which put lots more pressure to succeed academically.  As a result, states and districts put more pressure on teachers to deliver the standardized curriculum, which supports the one-size-fits-all model.  Pacing guides were developed to assure that teachers were keeping up with the expected pace of instruction whether or not kids had deeply learned the material.  Assessment systems were developed to add pressure to the instructional process, pressure on teachers, administrators, and students to cover the content in case it was included on the required state tests.     

Common Core State Standards further reinforced the idea that all kids of a certain age should learn the same material at the same time and at the same pace.  The impetus behind national testing systems (PARCC and Smarter Balance) was a response to the different state testing systems and the willingness of state departments of education to change cut scores to make themselves look better.  National testing further reinforces the idea that all 8 year olds must cover the same content so they can be ready for the same test. 

In all these decades of “school reform”, little attention has been given to the obvious fact that all kids in a given grade-level are not the same.  Students develop differently, have different experiences, and have different interests.  But these truths have not been recognized in the high-pressure systems of standardized curriculum and standardized assessment we have in most schools.

3) Since the mid 18th century there have been enormous changes in almost every aspect of society, including technology, communication, transportation, banking, advertising, agriculture.  But in Brainless Sameness, you show that public education has continued to hold onto a standardized Cover/Test/Sort model for learning.  How badly is this failing us?

Most educators would say that we are working as hard as we can, covering as much as possible, and trying to get kids prepared to take the next required assessment.  And I would agree with them. 

Then I would point out, as I do in my book, that trying hard while using an antiquated model for learning will never allow us to successfully meet the learning needs of students in this modern era of information, technology, and innovation.  We can’t use the CTS model for learning and expect to get anything different than we have seen for the past fifty years. 

A study for the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that 75% of American 12th graders are not able to meet the standards for acceptance into the military.  College readiness rates are consistently low.  American students drop further behind other nations on PISA and other international assessments.  Poor children and vulnerable learners continue to be crushed by our one-size-fits-all delivery model. 

4) Can’t we refine our existing systems design for education to make it work better?

In the United States today there are educators, and parents, and community leaders who continue to act as if there is no option to a one-size-fits-all instruction and assessment system. It’s the way schools work, some will say. I don’t have the power to change it, you may believe. It is the law, you tell yourself.

Our existing system is built to:

· Cover content, test students, and sort them into winners and losers

· Teach the same content at the same level of difficulty to all students

· Allow many students to be taught within their frustration zone, week after week and year after year

· Use a limited-time structure for each lesson before moving onto the next unit of instruction

· Use pressure on teachers and learners to try to achieve better results

Over the last several decades, in the name of school reform, supporters of this system have doubled down on the standardized one-size-fits-all high pressure educational model that is driving good teachers away and convincing a lot of students that learning is not much fun.  Our experience clearly shows us that this systems model is incapable of building a nation of lifelong learners.

5) In Brainless Sameness you suggest that it is time to develop and use a different systems architecture for learning.  What would that look like?

In creating a model for instruction that better meets the needs of modern learners, we have to create a systems architecture that can consistently produce far more students who love to learn and continue to learn for life.  This new systems design must be attentive to the development of the whole person, including social-emotional skills, problem-solving skills, and positive character.

The system must be designed in keeping with everything we know about human learning, and more than lip service must be given to instructional match, intrinsic motivation, deep understand and application, differentiated instruction, the importance of safe and connected classroom culture, and the importance of art, music, movement, nature, and beauty.

This new systems architecture must value meeting the learning needs of individual students, rather than giving top priority to covering the content standards du jour.

The architecture of our new system must abandon “test and sort” in favor of assessment for learning. Assessment is most valuable when educators can use that information to thoughtfully design learning for each student, rather than ascribe grades and move on to the next chapter without allowing students to deeply understand and enjoy what they are learning.

To serve the needs of our children, this systems design must take a radically different view of how to deliver “school”, so that all children, not just a fortunate few, receive the instruction and practice time to build every essential skill along a pathway to higher level skills, at their own instructional level, for as long as it takes.

6) What are the underlying assumptions of this new personalized competency based learning model?

1. Students advance upon mastery, not time.

2. At the same age, all students are not alike in their experiences, rates of development, and learning readiness.

3. Students receive instruction and support based on need, not based on age or a pacing guide.

4. All students learn better when offered instruction at a level of challenge that allows for high rates of success.

5. Students work better in a community in which they feel safe and connected to others.

7) This sounds like ” free appropriate public education”.

Yes, for all students.

8) What about our gifted kids?

Programs for gifted kids have always used differentiated instruction.  In a competency based system gifted kids could learn at their pace, within both their areas of strength and their areas of need.  And so could diverse learners, students living in poverty, English language learners, and everyone else.

9) Are there many good examples of personalized competency based learning?

Fortunately we are surrounded by examples of personalized competency based learning systems, some of which have been around for a very long time.

The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts devised a merit badge system that is competency based and goes back to the early 1900s. Preparation for the trades, including electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and steelworkers, has long used a mastery based apprentice to journeyman to master-level progression of skills based on competency. Airplane pilots are trained using a competency based learning model, thank God!

Martial arts instructors, music teachers, and fine arts teachers all understand the need to take students where they are at, and deliver instruction at their individual readiness levels. Technical training in IT and many related disciplines is personalized and competency based.

Digital game designers use a deep understanding of human learning and motivation to devise games that engage and keep players in the zone.  It all gets individualized to the unique needs of each player.

Many universities are moving quickly toward competency based learning, following the lead of Western Governors University, Capella, and others.

New Hampshire and Maine have led the way toward competency based high school graduation systems which replace antiquated course and Carnegie credit requirements.

Early childhood programs (PK to Grade 3) are using the Essential Skills Inventories as a PK to Grade 3 competency framework.   The Summit Schools are using a personalized learning model.  Many other schools around the country are studying or piloting competency based models.  Digital learning programs are always personalized, and good digital programs are built to develop competency, no matter how long it might take.

10) What final thought would you like to share?

“We covered it and tested it” in a one-size-fits-all time limited educational system is a poor excuse for a learning systems architecture in the 21st century. 

It is time to begin to construct a plan for building the finest learning system ever created in all of human history.

If you are a parent, educator, or community leader in a position to demand or create change, it is time to stop holding onto a learning systems design that does not work for most students. It is time for stepping up, understanding the limitations of a standardized education system, and seizing the opportunity to create a new model that personalizes competency based learning so that far more students can succeed. 

Bob Sornson is a best-selling author and international consultant whose work focuses on competency based learning, early learning success, and parent education. He works internationally with school districts, universities and parent organizations. His many books include Brainless Sameness; the Demise of One-Size-Fits-All Instruction and the Rise of Competency Based Learning, Essential Math Skills: Pre-K to Grade 3; and The Juice Box Bully.  Contact

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